Of the thousands of podcasts that are now available, there are only two that I subscribe to, the New York Times Book Review podcast and NPR’s Fresh Air. In fact, I listen to them so regularly that the voices of their hosts – Pamela Paul of the New York Times Book Review podcast and Terry Gross of Fresh Air – seem more familiar to me than the sound of my own voice. So when I heard of the book, My Life with Bob, by Pamela Paul that was published recently, I had to, of course, read it – despite the fact that I have a marked preference for fiction and My Life with Bob is more of a memoir. (Interestingly, Pamela Paul was interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air shortly after her book was published, so I had a chance to listen to both of them in the same podcast!)
Contrary to what you might expect, the “Bob” of My Life with Bob is not a guy, but a list of books that Pamela Paul has maintained for twenty-eight years, starting from the time she was in high school. This becomes obvious from the subtitle of the book, which is “Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues.” Thus, Bob here is an acronym for “Book of books.” It might seem strange to keep such a list – it’s not something people commonly do – and it is a testament to how much Pamela Paul loves books that she has kept a record of every book that she has read since high school. And not only that, her Bob is so precious to her that if she was forced to evacuate her home in a hurry, Bob is what she would choose to take – after her family, of course, but before critical documents such as passports and birth certificates. (Bob, is contained, so far, within a single notebook and is hand-written, and while I can see the importance of maintaining the hand-written aspect of it, I think it can at least be scanned and archived, so she does not live in mortal dread of losing it!)
For a fellow book lover, My Life with Bob provides a fascinating glimpse into the life of someone who has always been passionate about books since she was a kid. Keeping a list of books may have started out as a whim for Pamela Paul – one of those things you embark upon in your teens but soon lose interest in – but it actually became almost a necessity for her, as books were the one constant in her life that she was always passionate about. Her list starts with Franz Kafka’s The Trial on a summer-abroad trip to rural France as a high-school student and continues till the present day, following the arc of her life through college, early adulthood living in Thailand in the soul-searching “What do I want to do with my life?” phase, early career as a freelance writer in which she was able to land prestigious gigs such as a monthly column in The Economist, a first marriage ending in divorce, her second marriage, the birth of her three kids, and her professional ascent in the editorial and publishing world that has culminated in what would seem to be the pinnacle for someone who wants to work with books – becoming the editor of the New York Times Book Review.
Contrary to a personal journal or dairy which is commonly used by people to capture the events, thoughts, feelings – and very often, angst – at specific times in their lives, maintaining a list of every book that she has read is much more meaningful to Pamela Paul, as it concisely captures the trajectory of her life. Instead of reading her thoughts about what she felt at a certain time if she had captured them in a diary – most people who maintain regular journals will probably have hundreds of them – she can simply look at any book in her list and remember the event or experience associated with it, even if it was twenty years ago – similar to how a photograph can trigger long forgotten memories. In her list of books, she even indicates which ones she was not able to complete, which is also illuminating, as what a person does not like is as indicative of their personality as what they do like. While a list of books cannot always be a good filter to find like-minded people, a person’s reading list does tell you a lot about their personality, and the immediate affinity you feel towards someone who feels the same way about a specific book as you do is undeniable.
As you would expect from someone who is the editor of the New York Times Book Review, Pamela Paul is an accomplished writer, and while I have not read any of her earlier books, I found My Life with Bob very well written. It was fascinating to get an inside look at the life of someone whose world revolves around books, all the way from being a “bookish child” who always felt book-deprived, to her current position where she is surrounded by a glut of books and can only manage to read a tiny fraction of them.
My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues
Author: Pamela Paul
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
Publication Date: May 2017
Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.